It seems fitting in a time of widespread disease and suffering that we look back to a similar time: the AIDS crisis. Set in Reagan’s America, Tony Kushner’s two-part play explores the lives of six New Yorkers and the direct impact that the epidemic has on their lives.
Directed by Marianne Elliot, the 2017 National Theatre production won the Olivier for best revival, of which it is clearly deserving. The similarities between the productions that Elliot is known for are obvious: the strobe lighting and box-shape scenery from part two of the play is reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Despite the grand scale of the play, there is simplicity to its direction that is evocative of War Horse.
The beauty of Angels in America is the way in which Kushner develops a well-rounded story for each of the seven characters that allows each of them to come into their own whilst still intertwining their lives so that they are not separated to the point of complete disconnect. Joe is a Mormon who struggles to come to grips with his own homosexuality whilst also caring for his wife who is struggling to grasp reality in the midst of her Valium addiction. Joe’s boss, Roy Cohn, is a despicable lawyer who attempts to cover his AIDS as liver cancer in order to hide his homosexuality from his conservative peers. Prior struggles with his AIDS diagnosis as his lover, Louis, rejects him when the reality of the illness reveals itself. The character of Belize serves as a connecting thread: he is a friend of Prior who comforts Louis after their breakup, as well as being a nurse who cares for Roy towards the end of his life. This is a level of complexity that could not be achieved without the play being of the colossal length that it is.
The 2017 revival was a major success all round, but it is Andrew Garfield’s performance as Prior Walter that outshines the rest. Although Garfield has proved himself to be an extremely versatile actor through his various different roles in film, Prior, a camp, flamboyant and overdramatic gay man, is unlike any of his well-known characters, and yet Garfield embodies him effortlessly.
Denise Gough’s performance as the Valium-addicted Harper Pitt, who struggles to differentiate fantasy from reality, is particularly striking. The play explores ideas of reality vs imagination from a unique perspective, partially through the character of Harper; the audience views both what Harper experiences as real in her drug-induced hallucinations and what the other characters know to be ‘true reality’. Her character’s story also offers a desperate and tragic look at depression and loneliness, particularly from a feminine angle – she is a Mormon housewife who tends to stay at home without seeing anyone, which is both a cause and a result of her deteriorating mental health.
Russell Tovey brings a sense of sad introspection to his performance of Joe Pitt, which makes the audience sympathise with a character that is not conventionally likeable. We see him struggle as he tries to locate a sense of morality within the battle of his Republican Mormon upbringing and the more liberal views of his new acquaintances. As he tries to come to terms with his own sexuality, we feel his anguish as we realise he has been hiding from not only his wife, mother, and father-figure boss, but also from himself.
Ian MacNeil’s ingenious set design for Part One: Millennium Approaches consists of a spinning platform in order to incorporate the different spaces required such as: Harper and Joe’s apartment, Prior and Louis’s apartment, the hospital, and the office. However, in Part Two: Perestroika, this adapts to become a dual level stage which allows for more depth in the action taking place and facilitates the scenes in which Prior goes to heaven. Although the choice of a dark and simplistic set had the potential to detract from the naturalism of the piece, this is not at all the case. The use of LED light panels to border the scenes effectively draws your eye to the heart of the action and adds a futuristic feel, which serves as a constant reminder of the looming presence of the angels even in scenes that are focused on trivial everyday events in the characters’ lives.
So, if you enjoyed It’s a Sin, and are interested in some reflection on the politics of the past forty years, then the National Theatre Production of Angels in America is a must-see. When Kushner wrote ‘in the new Century I think we will all be insane’, it even almost feels as if he is speaking to a 2021 audience.